A Crappy Philosophy

When you watch a lot of SpongeBob, you also find yourself watching a lot of commercials aimed at kids, and it has irritated me for decades just how gender segregated the commercials are.

Commercials for “boy” things show humans who are do-ers: action-oriented, things to build, take apart, throw, catch, very hands-on. The girl commercials show humans who are focused on pretty. Unicorns with manes and tails to brush. Make-up kits. Girls can make things, but in their play kitchen. And nurturing, don’t forget that. Doll after doll for girls to take care of. And now, we’ve reached what I can only hope is the nadir: a pinkish purple flamingo that craps in a toilet for you to clean up after.

While there may be something wrong with any kid who enjoys cleaning up after toy flamingos, I don’t have a problem with girls who want to play with dolls and boys who want to conduct science experiments. But I also don’t have a problem with boys who want to play with make-up and girls who want to race cars. Based on their advertising, however, every toy company in the world takes issue with this.

Let’s just take Lego as an example. When I was a kid, one million years ago, Legos came in four primary colors and a limited number of sizes and lengths. You put them together in any manner you chose, and I didn’t think it was a gender-specific toy. No one got made fun of for playing with Legos that I’m aware of. (Although people like me, with no engineering sense whatsoever, probably had plenty of people poke fun at our “creations.”)

But when Lego decided, a few years back, that it wanted more girls playing with its toys, which by now had evolved to giant, horrendously expensive kits with a single way to properly assemble 3,000 miniaturized pieces, it didn’t change its advertising to show more girls playing with these kits, it came out with an entirely separate line for girls. Featuring dolls.

[I have, very recently, seen Lego showing a woman putting together models of buildings from around the world, and the tagline says, “Adults welcome.”]

Once upon a time I wanted to get someone, probably my niece Ellie, an astronaut action figure. But I wanted a female action figure. Surely there would be figures venerating the likes of Sally Ride or Mae Jemison. But I couldn’t find anything. The only thing I could find was a curvaceous blonde wearing a NASA suit.

I e-mailed a complaint to the company selling this thing, telling them Barbie in Space didn’t strike me as an adequate role model for either my niece or her younger brother. I got a reply, but it was extremely defensive and informed me this is what young girls liked.

I think it’s what young girls like because it’s all they get handed. I imagine they would like Sally Ride figures too, if only someone would make them. The real success will come when uncles buy the Mae Jemison figures for their nephews as well.

This has all come to mind this morning because of a separate but related issue. I kept the clock for my second and final set of middle school football games of this truncated season yesterday, and I have to confess, after listening to the Gunnison sideline, I’m just as glad these were the final games this season.

There are four Gunnison coaches, about the number there are each season. Usually two take responsibility for the seventh grade and the other two the eighth, but these four seem to be interchangeable for both games. Two of them I don’t recognize at all; one used to coach younger kids but has moved up, perhaps as his son reached middle school; the other, who may be the head coach, has assisted in the past and served as a coach for at least one of the high school’s golf teams.

His name is Paul, and once upon a time he was a Gunnison Mustang himself. Paul I like, but I realized yesterday that all three of his assistants are from that school of thought that says you build men up by breaking them down, and all they do is scream at their young charges for everything they’ve done wrong.

As a sports reporter for 10 years and part of game support staff for the 25 since then, I have seen plenty of coaches and coaching philosophies. This is the philosophy I’ve never cared for, because I’ve never figured out how you positively motivate kids by shouting for all to hear about how poorly they’re doing.

In general, this is a philosophy reserved for boys. Coaches, even those who I personally watched take boys down in this manner, soften their tone when they start coaching girls. I don’t know, because I’ve almost never been to the practice sessions, if it’s because girls are more willing to show their emotions and perhaps burst into tears when yelled at, but it seems that most coaches quickly figure out this is not a way to motive girls.

I just wish they’d extrapolate that and realize it’s not really motivation for anyone, even if their own coaches all operated in this manner and just look at how they turned out.

Many, many years ago, I happened to overhear a conversation between the late Larry Nims of Gunnison and a coach from Delta, who had just switched from coaching boys’ basketball to girls. The Delta man said to Coach Nims, with kind a rueful surprise, “Coaching girls is completely different.” And Coach Nims, who never coached by tearing his players down, just smiled and said, “Yes it is.”

I am well aware that when anyone, like me, starts arguing that boys and girls ought to be treated more similarly, there is going to be that equal and immediately opposite reaction that says, “Boys are different from girls.” And I know parents who are meticulous in their determination to treat their sons and daughters the same, particularly in the realm of toys, who say over and over that girls and boys are different.

Hand a boy a stick and he’s likely to treat it like a gun, while a girl may take that same stick and treat it like a doll. That’s fine. If that makes them happy, great. As long as we’re okay with the boy who cradles a stick and the girl who uses it to bulldoze roads in the dirt.

But I don’t understand why toy manufacturers don’t try to immediately double their market by putting both boys and girls in their commercials for race tracks and building toys. They should also be able to put boys in the unicorn commercials, but that’s not going to happen in our overly macho society.

And I’m just never going to understand a mentality that says we’re going to make men of our boys by screaming at them and tearing them down. I didn’t like it when I first encountered it, and I realized yesterday that I still find it an awful way to “educate.”

Because no one should enjoy being crapped on, even if it’s by a pinkish purple flamingo.

One thought on “A Crappy Philosophy

  1. I love this perspective, especially about coaching. I had a team of 9 & 10 year olds one year I coached basketball, and we may have only won one game, but I’m confident they learned fundamentals, had a blast, and not one boy on that team lost his love of the sport because of that season.


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